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Prosecution rests in kidnapping trial of pastor

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BURLINGTON, Vt. >> Prosecutors rested their case on Friday against an Amish-Mennonite pastor accused of abetting an international parental kidnapping, after three days of testimony suggesting that others had also conspired to help a born-again Christian mother spirit her daughter abroad.

The high-profile case, in U.S. District Court here, is expected to go to the jury this coming week. Lawyers for the defendant, Kenneth L. Miller of Stuarts Draft, Va., called two character witnesses on Friday and said they had not decided whether to put Miller on the stand.

The defense did not contest telephone records, recovered emails and testimony indicating that Miller helped the mother, Lisa A. Miller, flee to Nicaragua with her daughter, Isabella, in September 2009. (Kenneth Miller and Lisa Miller are not related.)

Kenneth Miller also arranged for missionaries of his Beachy Amish-Mennonite sect to shelter the mother and daughter, evidence indicated, and he later used deception to send them money.

Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins, her partner in a civil union in Vermont, split up in 2003 when Isabella was 17 months old. Lisa Miller moved with the girl to Virginia, became a born-again Christian, denounced homosexuality and sought without success to end Jenkins’ court-mandated visiting rights.

She became a heroine of conservative Christians, who started a Protect Isabella movement. Lisa Miller is now wanted by the FBI and Interpol and is believed to be hiding with Isabella, now 10, somewhere in Central America.

Defense lawyers maintain that Kenneth Miller did not believe it was illegal for Lisa Miller to take her daughter abroad at that time. But he did know, his lawyers and supporters acknowledge, that a family judge in Vermont was threatening to transfer primary custody to Jenkins.

Whether Kenneth Miller acted “with intent” to help Lisa Miller evade court orders is the central issue before the jury of nine women and three men.

As more than 50 Amish-Mennonite supporters of Kenneth Miller’s crowded the courtroom, the testimony, often from reluctant witnesses, was intriguing. Lisa Miller’s formerly estranged father described his daughter’s odd request for help as she prepared to escape. A fellow pastor and a Mennonite travel agent described, with coaxing, Kenneth Miller’s efforts to conceal the pair’s travel.

Judge William K. Sessions III had to rule on thorny questions about the charges and what evidence, including Kenneth Miller’s religious beliefs, could be introduced. “This case has more twists and turns than any I’ve ever seen,” he said at one point.

Kenneth Miller’s fellow sect members — women in traditional dress, men with trimmed beards and children playing with Lego blocks in the hallway — raptly watched the videotaped testimony of Timothy Miller, a missionary in Nicaragua who is also unrelated to others in the case.

At Kenneth Miller’s urgent request, Timothy Miller said, he arranged the purchase of airline tickets from Canada to Nicaragua, met Lisa Miller and Isabella at the airport in Managua, Nicaragua, and took them to stay with other missionaries in a smaller town.

Appearing uncomfortable and claiming a spotty memory, he was asked to explain why he had been asked to book the flights from afar and to ensure they did not touch down in the United States, and why Lisa Miller and Isabella were disguised in Mennonite dress.

“It was Ken,” he softly said.

But Timothy Miller also provided Kenneth Miller with a line of defense, saying the pastor had said he did not believe Lisa Miller was in violation of court orders at the time.

Lisa Miller’s father, Terry Miller, of Gladeville, Tenn., who had not previously been linked to the case, described unusual calls his daughter asked him to make the day before she was driven to the Canadian border to catch a flight from Toronto.

After years of little contact with her father, Lisa surprised him in August 2009, he said, by bringing her daughter to visit for a week and asking for money. Then on Sept. 20, she called him from a Wal-Mart lot in Lynchburg, Va., said she was abandoning her car and asked him to call others in Virginia to pick her up.

The father said he did not ask Lisa why she was abandoning her car and why she did not make the calls herself. “I learned a long time ago that Lisa was a little hardheaded, that she wouldn’t listen to reason,” he said. “If I asked why, she wouldn’t tell me.”

Telephone records show that, among others, the father called Victoria Hyden, an assistant in the office of the Liberty University Law School in Lynchburg, Va., part of the evangelical university founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

The dean and associate dean of the law school are leaders of an affiliated legal group called Liberty Counsel, which represented Lisa Miller in the custody dispute. Hyden is the daughter of a Virginia businessman, Philip Zodhiates, who figured prominently in the testimony.

Suggesting that the flight was longer in planning than previously revealed, phone records showed that Lisa Miller spoke with Zodhiates the previous April, well before she had any contact with Kenneth Miller.

The records indicate that Zodhiates frequently spoke with Kenneth Miller and that he drove Lisa Miller and her daughter to the Canadian border on Sept. 21, 2009. But how Lisa Miller first met Zodhiates is not clear.

Zodhiates, who lives near Kenneth Miller and owns a Christian direct-mail company, Response Unlimited, has not been indicted and did not respond to requests for comment.

Phone records also provided the first evidence that Zodhiates contacted someone from Liberty Counsel even as Lisa Miller and Isabella were en route to Central America. On Sept. 22, 2009, just after he is alleged to have driven the pair to the Canadian border, Zodhiates called a cellphone registered to Liberty Counsel’s office in Orlando, Fla. He then called Liberty Council in Lynchburg and the law school.

Mathew D. Staver, dean of the law school and founder of Liberty Counsel, divides his time between Orlando and Lynchburg. Staver did not respond to a request via an email to identify who had used that cellphone, which is now disconnected. He repeated earlier denials that he or his co-counsel in the Miller case, Rena M. Lindevaldsen, had known anything about Lisa Miller’s escape plans or had contact with Zodhiates in that period.

Zodhiates’ telephone record “does not imply he tried to call either one of us,” Staver said.

Jenkins, Lisa Miller’s former partner, briefly took the stand on Friday, choking up as she described the last time she saw Isabella, in January 2009. She and her new wife then sat watching the trial, holding hands, amid Amish-Mennonites who regard homosexual behavior as a sin.

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